I think there was a time when pop culture and mass media realized that women could be mean. They discovered the secret like it was the Holy Grail and turned it into a trope that would never die. The Mean Girl. The Villainess. The Bitch. The Witch. The Slut. The Prude. Girl on girl hate has become a ubiquitous theme in romantic comedies, novels, television shows and nearly anything catering to the pre-teen, thus creating a never ending cycle of vicious gossip, bullying and tormenting.
Modern romance fights that tide.
Not all of it. I’ll be the first to say that romance, by the very nature of it being heavily dominated by women, has its fair share of catty name-calling, under breath mumbling and bathroom stall scrawling. But it has a lot that’s not that too.
Female friendships, or rather, female relationships, sisters, daughters, grandmas, neighbors, are a rock that has given womankind strength throughout the millennia. It has held them together in their own domestic sphere and far beyond, it has provided support, love, camaraderie and solidarity. And romance gets that, understands that women supporting each other is part of being a woman, and if you’re going to write woman’s stories, you need to write that.
These female friendships are one of the most important elements of the romance genre. For one, they are a rare medium that passes the Bechdel Test, a standard designed to answer some fundamental questions. 1) Does the story include more than one woman? 2) Do the women speak to each other? 3) Do the women speak to each other about something other than a man? The caveat of whether or not the women are named, first and last, is often added in as well.
Of course, this standard is somewhat flawed. Most media has male heroes and protagonists, thus making the not talking about a man element a little more challenging. But it’s a great place to start when determining the feminism level of a novel, and most romance passes it. Women discuss recipes, family and children. They debate careers, art and politics. They talk food, travel and dreams. Women supporting each other is a fundamental element of our lives.
Highlighting these female relationships is also important because of what the romance novel represents. While many scoff at the simplicity – boy meets girl, they fall in love and live happily ever after, most good romance strives to, and succeeds at, avoiding the idea of the heroine finding her happiness solely because of a man. Ideally, romance follows the journey of two people finding themselves, following their dreams and understanding their true potential together.
Gone are the days of gallant heroes sweeping damsels in distress off their feet and showing them their worth. Most romance heroines understand their worth, or find it over the course of the story for reasons other than the hero. Romance is not about that timeless trope of realizing you’re good enough because a man tells you. No, our heroines find confidence, power and their own sense of worth either with the hero or all on their own. The happily ever after is as much hers, and often his, as it is theirs.
And so much of that is derived from the other women they share the story with, women who can come in the form of domestic goddesses–celebrate the traditionally feminine!– powerhouse career friends, warriors or peacekeepers. Seeing our heroines interact with other women is another insight into how they live their lives, open their hearts and share themselves in a way that has nothing to do with romantic love.
In the interest of clarity, this topic does get a little more complicated when discussing male/male romances, given that there is no heroine, but that doesn’t mean supporting characters don’t get their own space. Characters who identify as female also deserve these all important relationships, though the industry still struggles to put that kind of inclusive fiction on the market.
Of course, there is always room for improvement, in and out of romance. In a perfect world, we’d do away with that crabs-in-a-barrel mentality instilled in women from a young age. In a perfect world, we’d cheer each other’s successes, comfort each other’s failures and help collectively push toward the future together. For now, romance is a good place to start. (And the only thing better is sharing a great romance novel with a friend!) ♥